Recruiting and retaining warfighters is critical to the success of the military and an enduring challenge. A huge variety of roles must be filled and in numbers not seen in many other organisations at such scale. The military is also perhaps uniquely young on average and roles are typically short, 2-3 years in duration. Incentives such as pay must be managed within public sector constraints. The world can furthermore change very fast, and there is a constant requirement for agility and adaptiveness as operational demands change. Longer term, roles will require more digital skills with the integration and iterative development of military platforms and systems and their software, and new roles in areas such as cyber and space. Against this backdrop, does defence need a transformed digital people system that better serves both warfighters throughout their career and the wider enterprise?
The UK military is not unique in the challenge of recruiting and retaining its warfighters, but a few numbers helps to frame a complex scene. The latest MOD statistics (rounded) show that there are 142,500 Regulars in the UK military and 34,000 Reserves. There is always a turnover, and in 2022 11,000 Regulars joined and 16,500 left, and correspondingly 3,500 and 5,600 Reserves. The average age for all Regulars is 31 and 39 for the Reserves with 12% of Regulars female and 16% for the Reserves. These large numbers of warfighters fill a broad range of roles. Currently the Royal Navy lists 102 roles on its website, with 101 roles in the British Army, and 63 roles in the Royal Air Force. The military also stands out from most organisations with only 0.1% of UK businesses having greater than 500 employees.
The recent UK Defence Command Paper’s response to a “contested and volatile world” was to make “our first-class people” a top priority and to invest accordingly in “their overall employment offer”. It recognised that as the pervasiveness of information and the pace of technological change transforms the character of warfare more skills, that change more quickly, are needed. And change is required also because aspirations and experiences are changing too. Many warfighters have grown up in a digital era where they now expect flexible, remote and hybrid working and to be able to operate together in a digital-first world. They may also anticipate more varied careers that will focus on how their employers’ goals and values align with their own. Defence is recognising these trends and that career structures and remuneration need to reflect modern aspirations such as flexible careers and roles. It is therefore promoting ‘zig-zag’ or ‘portfolio’ careers allowing the military to leave and then rejoin more easily and even change services.
As warfighters progress through their career they have to learn and become proficient at something new and then keep their skills up to date. People learn at different rates and also might bring in previous know-how and so optimising their learning to meet their individual needs offers the prospect of getting them to front line services as soon as practicable. For these reasons defence is looking towards greater personalisation learning, or so-called adaptive learning when technology is used to achieve this. Key to such learning is data. Data-driven learning allows learners to progress based on their mastery of competencies and skills and their instructors and learning systems to provide more tailored and effective learning. Further, commanders and the wider enterprise can also monitor the readiness of units and forces more accurately. As AI techniques become more important it will be critical that such data is easily understood by machines. It will also require bringing together key data from diverse sources into what are sometimes called ‘data lakes’, and so offering more insights than any single data source.
A Fractured Ecosystem
The recent Haythornthwaite Review of the incentivisation of UK Armed Forces personnel noted in its look at MOD digital people systems that “data is hard to access, technology is ageing, and …. a fractured ecosystem has created the need for manual workarounds … there is no single view of data across the Armed Forces.” The Defence Command Paper has responded by stating that “as a top priority, we will look to digitalise and simplify our whole force people system”. It is clear that defence has digital people systems that will struggle to meet future demands, but that there is a will to address the problem. Nevertheless, there does not appear to be an overarching drive to integrate or converge the AFRP (Armed Forces Recruiting Programme), JPA (Joint Personnel Administration), DLMC (Defence Learning & Management Capability), and wider learning data initiatives.
My Digital Twin Future?
Defence is not alone in having many legacy personnel systems that struggle to interact and exploit data. Indeed, they perhaps reflect the unique complexity and scale of the military. There are however, clear imperatives for defence to leave behind its “fractured ecosystem”, and fast. Is having a clear long term vision the answer? Should it be centred around the warfighter within a military metaverse construct? A system where the warfighter has a through-career digital twin that supports them from the moment they are interested in joining the military, through recruitment and training, having an avatar that is interoperable across all training systems, helping them to counter skill fade, and support their “zig-zag” careers, in and out of the military and across the Services. A system that also provides commanders and operational planners with dashboards helping them to identify who is ready for which role, the effectiveness of their training, and assess and control the readiness of units. Such a convergence of digital systems has security and privacy implications and crosses many current organisational boundaries. But such a warfighter-first vision could help drive the convergence of digital platforms and data towards more integrated and effective people management systems that defence is calling for.